Irma Knocks Out Puerto Rico's Ad Industry

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It's back to basics in Puerto Rico as ads focus on radio and TV, and people prepare for no internet should AT&T and Claro stop working.


DDB Puerto Rico sent staff home about 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday to prepare for the island's most powerful hurricane in 100 years. Still, some continued to work until 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday to wrap up creative and get it to clients and media, says CEO Edgardo Rivera, speaking from the patio of his home, where the power has gone out. (His cellphone, he says, now only works outside, and he expects to lose the signal altogether.)

The agency started planning early for clients like Walmart and Puma Energy gas stations, Rivera says. For Walmart, which has about 18 stores in Puerto Rico, the agency activated social media to keep consumers informed about how long stores will stay open and what basic supplies like water are still in stock. (Walmart started closing some of its stores at 6 a.m. today.)

"Some clients we're holding back on campaigns," Rivera says. Other advertisers are using radio and TV, since many viewers will get at least basic cable thanks to their back-up generators.

DDB's Edgardo Rivera
DDB's Edgardo Rivera Credit: DDB

Puerto Rico's fragile electric grid goes down as soon as a storm starts, or even before, and it may take three or four months to restore service in the most remote pockets. Puerto Ricans who can afford to leave the island during hurricanes often do, but they tend to fly to Miami, which isn't an option this time since Hurricane Irma is expected to hit Florida next.

"If it hits us hard, the worst part will be the aftermath, especially with the electric power," says Jaime Rosado, regional chief creative officer for Puerto Rico & Latin America at J. Walter Thompson Puerto Rico. "Some experts are saying that it could take months to get back to normal. In terms of the business, all local clients have postponed their big projects but we handle regional accounts too in the U.S. and Latin America, so as soon as the emergency finishes we'll get back immediately to the office."

Meanwhile, he says, a skeleton crew is working from home managing social media for local clients and keeping regional clients' projects on track.

Clients at DDB that have storm-related information to get out, like retailers and gas stations and even Clorox, are still advertising, along with insurance company Cooperativa de Seguros Multiples, says Riviera. The insurer's most important message right now is what to do with your car during the hurricane, especially if it's parked outside. (Pro tips: Don't park under a palm tree. Or on a steep hill, but do stay above possible flood levels. And you can't buy car insurance once the hurricane has started. Yes, people try to do that).

Although Puerto Ricans are hurricane veterans—this is Rivera's fourth (plus he's a former contestant on the Fiji edition of CBS's "Survivor")—some of the office's 100 staffers are from other countries, such as Argentina, Colombia and Mexico. On Tuesday, DDB's local HR team packed those families, including kids, cats and dogs, off to a hotel and Airbnbs in southern Puerto Rico, where Hurricane Irma is expected to be weakest.

Rivera plans to check out the office Thursday afternoon and, if there isn't too much storm damage, re-open on Friday, relying on the building's back-up generator and giving staff flexibility if their homes need repair.

Meanwhile, he's relaxing at home playing board games with his wife and 9-year-old twins, who for once can't use their cellphones and tablets.

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